When a child learns something new, try not to laugh.
One night many years ago, when my wife and kids and I were camping at Loft Mountain Campground in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, we had a couple of unexpected visitors. We were awakened in the wee hours by a ruckus under our tent-trailer.
The scuffling and snarling obviously involved at least two animals, probably no more than two. It just lasted a few minutes, but it was loud enough to wake us all. Well, maybe all except my youngest son, Charlie, who was not quite three years old.
The kids who did wake up were all excited, but I didn't let anyone go outside. It might have been opossums or raccoons, but I was pretty sure it was skunks, and I didn't want anyone getting any first-hand experience with their "secret weapon." (That's another story.)
Before too long, the noisy creatures went on with their nocturnal foraging, and we went back to sleep.
A few hours later, we were up, and we decided to take a quick little hike. We had time, although this night's camping was part of a larger adventure. (That's another story.)
All through the morning's activities and breakfast, the three older kids were talking excitedly about skunks. Now, since we moved to New Hampshire a couple of decades ago, skunks have become just an ordinary part of our lives. They rummage in the trash cans and they have babies under the neighbor's shed and they scuffle with the neighborhood cats. But back then, a skunk was something of wilderness and something new to the kids. Very exciting.
Charlie didn't seem to remember the skunks under our camper the previous night, so I guessed he hadn't woken up. He listened with a kind of detached curiosity as his brothers and sister asked me all about skunks.
Later, on our morning walk around the rim of Loft Mountain, my oldest son and I were talking about something. Can't even remember what it was. All I remember is that I pointed out something and directed his attention to "right next to that stump over there."
Charlie was confused. "That's a stump?!?"
I knew immediately what he was thinking, and I tried not to laugh too much. I explained things to him: "A skunk is an animal. It's black and white, and it's about the size of a cat. A stump is a broken tree."
Charlie was satisfied with that, but he had to rehearse it to make sure he got it. At that age, his manner of rehearsing new knowledge was to tell me about it, as if I didn't know. And he did this again, and again, and again, ...
All through the rest of the trip, at least once or twice an hour, Charlie regaled me with his new understanding of the world.
"Daddy, a skunk is a black-and-white animal the size of a cat, and a stump is a bwoken twee."